Long before he was a New York Times best-selling author and the host of chart-topping podcast “The Tim Ferriss Show,” Tim Ferriss was doing what a lot of ambitious twenty-something entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley area were doing: he was blogging.
It would be a few years before the one-time nutritional supplement salesman-turned-productivity guru would become a household name for deconstructing the tactics, routines, and experiences of some of the world’s top performers.
But, fresh off a turning point speaking opportunity at SXSW and the release of his first-ever book, The 4-Hour Workweek, Ferriss was already evangelizing on his blog about the habits and strategies that were soon to make him a success.
One of them was note-taking.
“I take notes like some people take drugs,” he writes in one of the many how-tos that appeared on his blog in 2007.
A self-described hypergraphic (aka someone with an overwhelming urge or compulsion to write), the then 30-year-old claimed he had an eight-foot stretch of space on his bookshelves devoted exclusively to personal notebooks and journals.
“Note taking,” he says, “is—in my experience—one of the most important skills for converting excessive information into precise action and follow-up.”
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According to Ferriss, the art of “simple but effective note-taking” helps him:
- Review book highlights in less than 10 minutes
- Connect scattered notes on a single theme in 10 minutes that would otherwise require dozens of hours [of work]
- Impose structure on information for increased retention and recall
And as he explains in a follow-up YouTube video in 2020, note-taking helps him clarify his thoughts and emotions, reduce anxiety, improve focus, and perform better in his work and personal life.
Despite writing “how to take notes like an alpha-geek” 15 years ago, much of Ferriss’ advice is still relevant today.
Here are his recommendations from “inside the world of a compulsive note-taker” on how to take better notes.
Follow them, and maybe you too can learn any language in three months, how to speed read, or, if you’re feeling really feisty, successfully research strategies to reach the goal weight for your next UFC fight.
How to Journal and Take Notes like Tim Ferriss
1. Make Your Notes Easy to Find
“Information is useful only to the extent that you can find it when you need it,” Ferriss writes.
But, he points out that many people suffer from “note proliferation”: when an important thought, reminder, or idea comes to mind, people will often hastily scribble down a note on anything—“the backs of envelopes, billing statements, hotel paper, etc.”—with no real system in place to house or organize them.
That’s where consolidation comes in.
Ferriss recommends creating an index—either at the front of a notebook or in a book you’re reading—where you can highlight noteworthy topics and mark down their corresponding pages. That way, you can quickly “refer back and review key concepts in 5-10 minutes.”
At the time of his writing, Ferriss used a traditional notebook, hand-numbering “30 pages at a time, as needed” to create a framework for his index. But you could do a similar thing using a tagging system in a digital note-taking app to help you organize, find, and scan through notes way faster.
2. Choose the Right Tool for the Job
“Not all notepads are created equal,” Ferriss writes. “You should match the form factor and durability of a notepad to the content.”
In 2007, that meant a lot of notebooks of various sizes and weights for Ferriss:
- A big notebook with graph paper for larger projects (like future books, TV programs, feature-length articles, and conference panel notes)
- A hard-backed, “perfect fits-in-ass-pocket checkbook size” notebook for telephone interview notes, lists, random observations, ideas, and projects that take less than three hours to complete
- A flexible softcover Moleskine for interviews out in the field, capturing people’s contact info, and “temporary to-do lists” (although he points out these kinds of notebooks are the most likely to get “ripped to pieces in backpacks, luggage, and pockets over just a few weeks”)
In 2020, Ferriss was still using a similar analog system, despite becoming a strategic advisor to Evernote (remember them) in 2010 and using the app for all his “note-taking, decluttering, research, and more”. But the reasoning can apply to both traditional paper and digital notebooks.
For Ferriss, note-taking can serve many purposes—from digesting information and brainstorming to improving focus, execution, and appreciation to acting as a “spiritual windshield wiper” for the mind.
But it all begins with choosing the proper pad (or app) for the job.
For some, a simple note-taking app will do. Others may want something more complex. But the purpose ultimately defines which medium or method you choose.
3. Regularly Revisit and Filter Your Notes
Knowing what to write down is often as important as writing anything at all. But too many long-winded notes can make it difficult to find, understand, and retain what you’ve written down.
“You need a systematic way of filtering the best stuff to the top,” he says.
That’s why Ferriss suggests regularly revisiting your notes.
In his 2020 video on note-taking and journaling, Ferriss has a simple strategy for ensuring your notes only contain the information you need to know about:
Look over your notes, and ask yourself, “what did I think was important or cool” that “isn’t that important or cool?”
Doing so will help ensure you only select and distill “the absolute best” information worth remembering.
The Simple Path to Note-Taking Like a Pro
A lot has changed in Tim Ferriss’ life since 2007. But one thing that hasn’t is why he does what he does.
“All of my books, all of my podcast episodes are personal,” he told GQ in 2020. “I'm trying to figure something out, or I'm trying to learn more about something, or I'm trying to achieve a goal or remove a pain.”
For that, he turns to writing, note-taking, and journaling.
As Ferriss has described over the years, note-taking can take many forms and serve many purposes.
It all starts with what you use.
Click here to get early access to our next-generation note-taking app, and visit our blog for more insights on how today’s business leaders and leading thinkers take notes.